I hold immense respect for my female friends and colleagues who are struggling to advance their own academic careers alongside a spouse’s. I’ve watched brilliant women find a plethora of creative solutions to the “two-body problem,” as it’s termed, from negotiating spousal hires to commuting great distances to settling for second- or third-choice jobs, sometimes even leaving academia altogether. I have attended countless seminars on work/life balance where the same inevitable questions arise: How do I balance my commitment to my children with my commitment to my research career? How do I juggle my husband’s career demands with my own? How do my academic husband and I strategize to find two professorships in the same university? When someone mentions the two-body problem, a palpable sense of collective panic seems to overtake the room. I can feel the married women around me bristle with the deep-seated fear that the roles of Academic and Wife/Mother are ultimately irreconcilable, and that some point they are going to have to choose.
Like many of my peers, though, I can’t help but feel left out of the work/life balance conversation. While I sympathize with “two-body” challenges, I have to admit that it’s alienating and sometimes painful to sit through these discussions, and I have come to resent the terminology we use to describe the predicament.
The two-body… problem? You mean, having a husband? And a child? That problem?
With all due respect, it seems like a pretty good problem to have.
I am a female scientist in her early 30’s. I have spent well over a decade in the dating world. In my twenties, I didn’t worry much about marriage or children. As someone with many close LGBT friends, I found marriage itself, and my right to it, problematic. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted kids, and I was annoyed by society’s presumption that I did. But more to the point, I figured I had plenty of time. I’d find my soulmate, if he existed, when the time was right.
I dated. It was challenging. When a boyfriend of four years abruptly walked out on me, I realized that finding a life partner was about so much more than love. It was about dedication, maturity, timing, self-knowledge, courage—in other words, things I had little enough control over in my own life, let alone a partner’s. Meanwhile, I had decided to pursue a career in science, and I knew from watching my female mentors that I would probably be battling institutionalized and internalized sexism for the rest of my career. The best thing I could do for my scientific life and my love life was to follow my inspiration, learn how to best wield my strengths and passions, and focus on being true to myself amidst the cacaphony of conflicting “you-shoulds” about femininity I knew I’d hear forevermore in the lab, in the classroom, in magazines, and in romantic comedies. I went off to graduate school with an open mind, an open heart, and a reckless optimism that everything would work itself out.
But if dating as a single working girl had been challenging, dating as a Ph.D. student was excruciating. My fellow graduate students were mostly single women or not-single men. Those few single guys, perhaps unbeknownst to them, had flocks of secret admirers subtly vying for their attention. It felt like a creepy repeat of high school, only older and dorkier. With men outside of the university, I inevitably ran into the same two problems. First, as a graduate student, I was transient by nature. Local guys with good jobs did not seem keen on the idea of leaving them to follow me around after I graduated, moving at least once for a postdoc and again for a tenure-track position with no guarantee of permanency. Two, the non-academic men I met had trouble understanding how I could possibly be so busy, and they never truly understood why I couldn’t just leave the lab at 5pm or half-ass a paper. I started to understand why female academics are more likely than their male counterparts to have an academic spouse.
I’m no Charlotte York – if you saw the permanent mud stains on my only pair of good dancing heels, you’d understand — but I can sympathize with her now in a way my feminist self never thought possible. While I’ve never considered marriage or children to be my life’s ultimate goal, the pinnacle of my existence, I do take love seriously. I take it seriously for the same reasons I take science seriously. I became a scientist because I am a thoughtful, curious, inquisitive person who thinks the world is a pretty darned amazing place. My dedication to uncovering new truths about the universe is my way of paying homage to its intricate brilliance. I see love in a similar light. It’s a complex, beautiful thing that deserves the highest honor, dedication, and homage. It is a privilege to devote oneself to it.
In my last year of graduate school, it dawned on me that I might not ever have this privilege. Yet another non-scientist guy had just decided my independence, self-awareness, and ambition – qualities he found alluring at first – were too much to put up with. I dejectedly searched the internet for information on freezing my eggs. ($10,000 a pop on a Ph.D. or postdoc salary? OK. Not an option.) I focused on science, leaning in to my dissertation in a way Sheryl Sandberg would be proud of.
But I was also leaning out. My dream job opened up at a university in a small midwestern town. I was excited at first. It was the perfect fit for me academically: excellent research fit, great colleagues and mentors, plentiful resources. But I started to worry that it would be the final nail in a loveless, childless coffin. I would have no friends or family within 1000 miles. I had never lived in such a small town. My friends from small towns said often that people back at home tended to marry younger. How much of a dating pool would there even be? It seemed that as a new professor, I could likely remain single for quite some time—maybe forever. My optimist side said to give it a chance, but my pragmatic side said I’d be taking a huge personal risk. In the end I decided it wasn’t worth it.
The result? I did not even apply for this job. This otherwise perfect job.
Ironically, I soon after met and began dating my current boyfriend, another academic who is one of the loveliest human beings I have ever met. The challenges we face as an unmarried couple on the job search – “one body” on paper, “two bodies” in reality – will have to wait for a future post. Suffice to say, although we hear all the time about the “two-body problem,” the “one-body problem” affects women’s decisions too. Nationally, women with more education tend to marry later. This means that if a pool of applicants for a postdoctoral or faculty position are all the same age, the women are more likely to be unmarried than their male counterparts. Single women are leaving academia and compromising their professional opportunities, just like married women.
And married women may have more benefits than they realize.Marriage comes with legal, social, cultural, and logistical privileges that extend into the academic sphere. A spouse and a family can provide the emotional support and sense of belonging that can make or break a difficult postdoc or your first year on the tenure-track. A spouse can subconsciously boost the image of a young female assistant professor in the eyes of her older colleagues, making her fit the “Professor” mold better than a single gal would. A spouse can help you afford to buy a house in an expensive college town. A spouse will keep you from running into your students on OKCupid.
It’s the 21st century. Structural and cultural norms around marriage and children are changing rapidly. Young people are juggling these changes alongside a growing multitude of professional demands. We have a long way to go in making the academy a tolerant workplace for women, but recognizing the way our institutions reinforce or reward traditional marriage and family structures is a good way to start.
When women thrive, science thrives; it’s good news for everyone. So as we work toward that common goal, let’s recognize that personal and family commitments take many forms.